The Fundamental Purpose of Branding within Motorsports and Business
What drew you in to motorsports when you were young? For me, it was the speed, the colors, the graphics, the brands, the sound, and the overall sensory overload the sport supplied. Sure, I thought cars were cool as a kid, but Kenny Schrader’s 2002 M&Ms NASCAR stock car, that to me was exponentially cooler than any road car. Later on, of course, I came to realize that there’s an incredible amount of design, strategy, and planning that goes into creating these brands and how we perceive them as motorsport fans. Today, as a designer and creative strategist in the industry, that’s what I’d like to dive into in this blog.
First, let's define what a brand is not
A lot of people get this wrong. They think a livery = a brand, or a logo = a brand, etc. But in truth, these are all just individual components of a brand. To say such is a bit like saying a roll-cage = a race car. Yeah, a roll cage might look a bit like a racecar. It might even be a key component. But at the end of the day, a roll-cage is just a roll-cage, not a racecar.
So then, what is a brand?
What does the assembly of all the components that create a brand equal? Well, your brand is ultimately how other people interpret, experience, and perceive your business, your race team, yourself as a driver/rider, or whoever or whatever you might be in the motorsports market. That's really it. The key term there is “how other people” interpret. It's not about what you think. It’s only about what other people think.
An Immaterial Good
A brand would also be considered an immaterial good. It’s ethereal in nature. You can’t hold it. You can’t directly produce it, you can only perceive it. In many ways, a brand is not too dissimilar to one’s personality. Like one’s personality, only other people are capable of perceiving it for what it truly is, and it shapes how others interact with you. In the same way, this holds true for a brand too. However, unlike your personality, which tends to be quite rigid in nature, a brand can be designed from the ground up to inform a chosen perception to a certain degree, among other key factors denoted below.
Brand vs Brand Identity - Subtle but Important Difference
Now, there are many facets to a brand, but one of the most common ways we experience a brand in motorsports is visually. Brand logos, brand color-ways, graphics, liveries, billboards, signage, hero-cards, motion graphics, company websites, business cards, sponsorship decks…All of these brand assets are perceived visually. Non-visual brand assets might include things like brand storytelling, brand messaging, brand experience design, and so on. But for the core guidelines laid out below, we’ll be focusing primarily on what we refer to as “brand identity design”, which is a fancy way of saying “all the visual components of one’s brand."
Rule 1: Consistency is Key
Your brand should be consistent across all domains it plays in from your business’s website to social media, to the experiences provided, to print media, and beyond. Being visually consistent helps build brand recognition among your audience, allowing them to identify you no matter the medium you operate within. The value of consistent recognition wherever you go is tremendous, and it allows you to affectively tackle the second core guideline, scaling.
Rule 2: It Should Scale
Scaling is a term used among designers usually in reference to things like a brand’s logo. Does a logo “scale”? What we mean by this is, your logo might be totally legible and identifiable when applied to the side of a racing hauler, but does that same logo maintain legibility and identifiability when used as your Twitter or Instagram profile image?
The term scaling also can refer to one’s entire brand ethos too. Do all the brand elements, graphics, or aspects that let people identify you scale across all domains effectively? Or does it only work in some domains, but not others? Having a brand that scales effectively wherever it’s applied will allow you to establish yourself with ease wherever your business or racing endeavors take you.
In real terms, scale generally means avoiding creating key identifiable elements that are either highly complex (graphically or otherwise) or lack the ability to be used in a cross-domain situation. As a simple example, maybe having a super intricate set of monochromatic line-drawings as your key visual elements isn’t such great idea if those same elements need to work in print where the intricacy will get lost in production. There’s a reason some of the biggest brands in motorsports and beyond have very minimalistic marks and elements.
Rule 3: Sufficiently Differentiated
In the same way that differentiation in business is a favorable strategy, differentiation in brand identity is also a key component. What good is being scalable and consistent if your brand looks just like everyone else, is sometimes difficult to distinguish at a glance, or worse yet, mistaken for a competitor? The key term here though is “sufficiently”. I’m a huge fan of really owning your own space, but when it comes to brand identity differentiation, you don’t actually have to be substantially visually different in order truly stand apart from your competitors. People naturally catch on to subtle differences over time.
Another reason being sufficiently differentiated is so important in motorsports specifically is because all brands quite literally congregate every weekend in the same physical, digital, and network locations. Unlike most sports where it’s one team vs another team, motorsport brings all teams onto the field at once. As such, you’re always competing for attention against everyone else at all times.
What matters most though regarding differentiation, as formally noted, is not blending in or being confused with someone else. Once those two hurdles are cleared, your brand elements are best guided by rules one and two with some creative direction and brand strategy applied.
So then, what is the true purpose of branding in motorsports?
The answer is that all of these aforementioned attributes and many more make the task of actually marketing yourself or your business more efficient and profitable. It's really that simple.
It’s Not Just Visuals, it’s About Producing Better Information
I like to think in systems. I want you to imagine all the components that make up your marketing, beyond just the brand itself. Each one of those components is a variable in a system (i.e. the system we all call marketing). The more constants you can create, the more predictable your outputs become. If a brand is built sound, and it properly solves for and addresses all the prior factors mentioned, you’ve taken what was previously a select set of variables in the system and converted them into constants.
However, unlike other variables such as your out-reach strategy, or go to market strategy, or partnership strategy, the brand is one of those elements that really only needs to be solved for once in a company’s history (or until the possibility of a rebrand makes strategic sense). And so by having the business’s visual brand identity underpinnings as constants in the marketing system, all downstream activities that involve your visual identity inevitably produce cleaner information as there is little to no questions that it’s working as intended, assuming it was designed properly.
I’ve found this is actually a widely overlooked aspect of brand identity design. Sure, there are other incentives and things you can optimize for on the brand’s visual front, but what truly matters, and what most companies benefit most from, is simply having better information from their marketing efforts as a whole.
A well-positioned, properly designed brand when marketed will be far more impactful, efficient, better at communicating, and easier to execute / scale. And with recognizability, scalability, and consistency as former variables now solved for, it will also be clearer which parts of your marketing efforts are truly effective, and which ones are not.
In the world of motorsports marketing, the less variables you have in play, the more efficient you’ll be able to make your marketing efforts overall, which in turn introduces greater certainty into the system.
…When all is said and done, what businesses truly want is more certainty in their marketing.